U.S. Department of Education Pulls the Race Card on Itself

by Christopher Paslay

For Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education, using racism as a tool to forward agendas proves to be a double-edged sword. 

Early in 2009, Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education, under the direction of President Obama, enacted a reform plan for America’s public schools nicknamed the “National Reform Model.”  The model, which in large part called for failing schools to be shut down and overhauled with new teachers and principals or reconstituted as charters, was the catalyst for the recent reform of public schools within Philadelphia.

Four years later, the School Reform Commission has decided to close 37 schools in the city, many of which are in disrepair and running at less than half capacity.  Ironically, now that the school closures have been set in motion, it’s the U.S. Department of Education that is crying foul.   

According to a January 29th Inquirer article headlined “Activists gear up against planned Philadelphia school closing”:

[Activists] will announce that the district is now the subject of a federal civil rights investigation into the racial patterns of its 2012 closings.  In a recent letter The Inquirer obtained, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed to the activist group Action United it would investigate its claim that the “district adopted a school closing and consolidation plan . . . that has a disparate, adverse impact on African American and Hispanic students, and on students with disabilities.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is fond of saying that “education is the civil rights issue of our time,” and that we must act now to reform our failing public schools—many of which serve African American and Hispanic students.  Interestingly, when school districts such as Philadelphia go ahead with the reform model Duncan has been pushing for the last four years—moving to close or overhaul those failing schools that happen to service mostly African American and Hispanic students—the U.S. Department of Education conducts an investigation over a possible civil rights violation because the closures disproportionally affect minorities.

It’s racial discrimination if you do, and it’s racial discrimination if you don’t. 

Such behavior reminds me of the 1977 Dr. Pepper commercial “I’m a Pepper,” except in this case it would be called “I’m a Racist”:        

I pull the race card and I’m proud

I use to feel alone in the crowd

But now you look around these days

And it seems there’s a race card craze

I’m a racist he’s a racist she’s a racist we’re a racist

Wouldn’t you like to be a racist too? 

Even the Philadelphia left-leaning media agrees that this race card pulling has spun out of control.  In an editorial headlined “By the Numbers: Closing schools is painful, but it’s not discrimination,” the Philadelphia Daily News argues that blaming the city’s public school closings on discrimination is absurd:

It’s hard to wrap our mind around the concept of a black mayor, a black superintendent and a School Reform Commission headed by a Latino public-school graduate conspiring to commit acts of racial discrimination. It’s harder still for opponents to face the reality of the closings.  It’s not discrimination, but powerful demographic forces that are at work.

Powerful forces such as the violent culture of certain neighborhoods, the breakdown of community and family, and the lack of parental involvement, perhaps? 

Tragically, race and racism are too often exploited and used as a tool for advancing agendas.  Beth Pulcinella, a teaching artist and activist working at the Attic Youth Center, wrote a commentary last fall for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook called “What I learned about successful organizing from Chicago teachers’ strike leaders”:     

I have been following the situation in Chicago with keen interest for a couple of years now, since members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) won enough union elections to gain control of the Chicago Teachers’ Union. But how was the union able to organize such a massive and publicly supported strike?

Pulcinella named several reasons CORE was successful, one of them being:

Members of CORE have not been afraid to discuss the ways that race and racism have created an educational apartheid in this country, a place where the term achievement gap is code for the gap between white students and students of color.

In other words, CORE wasn’t afraid to pull the race card to forward their agenda. 

Education activists and civil rights groups seem to be taking a page out of CORE’s playbook.  Some have gone as far as to call Obama’s education agenda, which has been blamed for school closings in major cities all across the country, racist.  The Huffington Post writes in an article headlined “School Closures Violate Civil Rights, Protestors Tell Arne Duncan”:

The standards-based education reform movement calls school change “the civil rights issue of our time.” But about 220 mostly African American community organizers, parents and students from 21 cities from New York to Oakland, Calif., converged on Washington Tuesday to tell U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan he’s getting it backwards on school closures.

Members of the group, a patchwork of community organizations called the Journey for Justice Movement, have filed several Title VI civil rights complaints with the Education Department Office of Civil Rights, claiming that school districts that shut schools are hurting minority students. While most school closures are decided locally, the Education Department’s School Improvement Grant gives underperforming school districts money for shakeups or turnarounds, including closures.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education, which wanted to end “discrimination” in public schools in part by pulling the race card, is forced to investigate itself because someone on the outside has pulled the race card on them.  

Us race card pullers are an interesting breed

To control the resources is what we need

Ask any race hustler and they’ll say

We’re the true racists for acting this way

I’m a racist he’s a racist she’s a racist we’re a racist

Wouldn’t you like to be a racist too?

The 37 school closings recommended by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission may or may not be justified; this is still a matter of public debate.  As Timothy Boyle rightly talks about in his recent commentary in the Notebook, the public still doesn’t have enough information to okay the SRC’s decision to shut down three dozen public schools; more detailed explanations are necessary. 

This, however, doesn’t justify pulling the race card, which cheapens true complaints about legitimate discrimination, and makes us all look like we’re simply crying wolf.

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6 Comments

Filed under Arne Duncan, Multiculturalism

6 responses to “U.S. Department of Education Pulls the Race Card on Itself

  1. SNE

    Hi Chris…Once again, Thanks for the opportunity to post. I actually have the answer to all of this. I have given it alot of thought through the years as an urban HS teacher. It has nothing to do with RACISM, although minority groups would love to pin it on that…why???? To take the attention away from what is really going on in urban schools!!! And many urban school leaders…Principals, Assistant Principals, Regional Superintendents…OF ALL RACES are involved!!!! It’s not RACISM Chris…but GREED!!!! THE GREED THAT COMES FROM INEXPERIENCE AND IGNORANCE!!!

    The urban schools which have the low income ( usually minority) students, with free lunches and low test scores receive Federal Funding, Title 1,4, funding, Extra Special Education Funding, Grants for School Improvement, Department of Labor Grants for Student Programs, State grants…More Federal Funding… which is ALL meant to go towards HIRING TUTORS FOR STUDENTS, AFTER SCHOOL ENRICHMENT PROGRAMS FOR STUDENTS, EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS FOR STUDENTS , BETTER FACILITIES FOR STUDENTS…..
    Which ALL would ultimately, if used properly and consistently, assist in the increase of grades and test scores of THE STUDENTS at these schools. Imagine what programs could be offered to kids with 10 Million dollars at a school!!! YES, SOME URBAN SCHOOLS GET THIS MUCH FOR THEIR KIDS!!!

    THE PROBLEM IS THAT THIS IS NOT WHAT HAPPENS IN ALL SCHOOLS..SOME YES AND THESE STUDENTS DO MUCH BETTER…BUT IN MOST OF THE FAILING SCHOOLS WHERE NO MONITORING GOES ON….THE MONEY COMES INTO THE SCHOOL…AND IT GOES TO SOME OF THE FOLLOWING, WHILE THE DISTRICTS LOOK ON…AND THEN WE WONDER WHY THEY ARE BROKE????
    Luncheons for Administration, After School Activities with Four Teachers Mentoring Five Students ( each teacher making 40-50 dollars an hour), The Principal has to Stay Late to complete the School Improvement Plan, or to Chaperone a Dance so he/she can put in TEN HOURS.( what happened to volunteerism)..Several People need Computers or Flat Screen TV’s so they are ordered accordingly…and somehow they “never make it” to the school???? OR somehow disappear and students are blamed for the theft!!! How sad…
    I have seen things like this occur right in front of my face…and it continues in schools that take in lots of money…the schools that house the Poor, Low Level Minority Students!!!! THAT IS WHERE THE MONEY IS!!! SO THAT IS WHERE IT IS MISUSED…THAT IS WHY MANY OF THE STUDENTS DON’T LEARN!!!!
    BECAUSE THE TONS OF MONEY THAT IS MEANT TO HELP THEM IMPROVE AND ADVANCE IS NOT THERE FOR THEM, BUT FOR THE PEOPLE WHO GET TO IT FIRST!!! GREED HAS NO RACE!!!
    When we are willing to really look at the issues at hand, THEN AND ONLY THEN, will the students improve in all schools…
    POOR ADMINISTRATORS NEED TO BE THROWN OUT OF SCHOOLS.
    NO MATTER WHAT ANYONE SAYS…THE SCHOOL IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE PRINCIPAL AND THEY MUST BE EXPERIENCED, CAPABLE, COMPASSIONATE, LITERATE, PROPERLY CERTIFIED AND HAVE A HEART FOR CHILDREN..OR THEY SHOULD NOT…..RUN A SCHOOL…..nuf said!!!!

    Anyone wanting info about actual misuse of funds…cntact me Education215@gmail.com.

  2. Grace

    SNE has a valid point about the misappropriation of funds in our schools. Principals have way too much leeway and very little accountability as to how they spend the school’s budget money, grants, etc. Even the POTUS has a system of checks and balances to ensure accountability… why isn’t there a system in place to monitor what principals do with the money? However, we’ve gotten off topic, as Chris’ editorial is about pulling the race card. Perhaps Chris will address this issue in a future blog.

    • SNE

      Thank you Grace. I just want to make it clear that the issue of “Minority Students” ( of color ) who are failing, is NOT DUE TO RACISM, but due to GREED and misappropriation of funding. There are many schools in many cities where “Minorities” ( I hate that term…) are excelling…unfortunately in OUR city..THEY BLAME IT ON RACE TO TAKE THE ATTENTION AWAY FROM THE CORRUPTION. And to this end, the “Minority” leaders perpetuate the racism by allowing school leaders to continue their practice because ” They are owed something”
      THE KIDS LOSE EITHER WAY!!!! I HAVE WITNESSED IT FOR YEARS!!!

  3. Chris: The closing of inefficient and underused school buildings is in and of itself not discriminatory. However, that is not happening in a vacuum and there are bigger and deeper issues which are causally connected to those closings. It can be well argued that there are “discriminatory circumstances” and “discriminatory practices” which are driving the policies and events which surround those school closings.

    Such high numbers of school closings and the turning over of public schools to privately operated entities is only happening in high minority school districts. So is the severe underfunding of public schools only happening in largely minority populations.

    The districts being taken over by state structures such as Act 46 almost always happens to school districts with largely minority populations. Collective bargaining rights of unions is being taken away from unions who represent largely minority populations.

    The rights of democracy in education are being stripped away only from largely minority populations. 98% of local school boards in America are democratically elected “by the people.” It is only in large urban, mostly minority, school districts that those rights are stripped from the populace. How many charter schools have the stakeholders of the school elect their members of their boards of trustees?

    The issue is “public education” itself and what it is and what it is not. What is the meaning and intent of “public education?” Those issues are not going away any time soon.

    The state takeover of our schools can be traced to when Superintendent David Hornbeck told Governor Ridge that his school funding policies were “institutional racism.” Has much changed since then?

    To ignore the discriminatory implications of what is gone on with the privatization of the American schoolhouse, is to put our collective heads in the sand.

    Our Great United States Constitution has a 14th Amendment. Contained in it is what is known as the “equal protection clause.” I suggest that we revisit its history and meaning. I also suggest that we revisit the history and meaning of the Civil Rights Act along with our “value of equality” in America and the fight of minorities for self determination.

    And then, “think deeply” about what is happening here and what it means to America and American democracy.

  4. phillystyle71

    Hi Rich,

    There are 3,096 public schools in Pennsylvania (as of last year), yet only 142 of them—one half of one percent—are charters. Of these 142 charters, 80 of them (56 percent) are in Philadelphia, another 15 are in the Pittsburgh/Allegheny area, and the remaining 47 are sparsely scattered throughout the rest of the state. Outside of poor urban areas, charter schools are practically nonexistent.

    Here are some facts about the residents of the City of Philadelphia:

    21 percent over the age of 25 have not graduated high school
    78 percent over 25 do not have a college degree
    21 percent speak a language other than English at home
    $36,251 is the median household income
    $500 million are owed in delinquent property taxes
    81 percent of students attending public schools are economically disadvantaged

    What do these facts indicate? Simply stated, they show that the engine driving Philadelphia’s public schools—families and communities—is weak and sputtering. Unlike the more affluent suburban districts where families use their knowledge and clout and power to micromanage nearly every aspect of their child’s education—successfully influencing policy and arranging for the dismissal of teachers, administrators and school board members if things don’t go according to their wishes—the majority of families at the core of the Philadelphia School District are, to put it bluntly, passengers instead of drivers.

    In my opinion social class, not race, is a reason for school closings and takeovers. If you are a passenger, you are at the mercy of the hand that feeds you.

    Chris Paslay

    • I think class has a whole lot to do with it, too. So does poverty. So does the desire of capitalists to turn public education into businesses for profit. The cities and lower economic areas are the ones most vulnerable and least able to resist churn. I am not talking about “change” either. The PFT and teachers have embraced every change put before them which can arguably be in the best interests of education. I am talking about Broad’s idea of churn to make cities “ripe for privatization.”

      There are many social issues and political agendas at play here and there are multiple discriminatory factors at play here, too. They are not limited to race based discrimination. We study the social sciences. Yet we tend to forget what we learned when we cross the schoolhouse steps.

      What do you think about the “academic segregation” of our students which is a result of the “selective school” process which stratifies our students academically? What do you think about the claims that the student selection processes at play have created racial “resegregation of our schools?”

      All of the issues of discriminatory practices are at play here. There are race issues at every school in America and the “achievement gap” is front center. We need to collectively clasp our hands together in unity and say, “For the good of us all. We need to overcome those issues and join together as a community of us all.”

      The rationale for public education has always been that it is — for the “common good.”

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